By Alison M
(Cross-posted from The Hand Mirror)
What if you had a way of providing an essential medical service that was safer, cheaper, less traumatic for patients, and meant they didn’t have to travel more than an hour each way to access it? Well, if it was for anything other than abortion, you’d be its champion. But this is abortion, and now the pioneering Tauranga Family Planning clinic, which has been providing early medication abortions in the Bay of Plenty since 2013, is under threat by anti-abortion court action that could worsen New Zealand’s already poor record on abortion access.
The court action by the Catholic anti-choice group Right to Life is a direct result of our now 38-year-old abortion laws, which criminalise abortion and continue to block the use of newer and better ways of providing it. And it’s not the first time our backward laws have been recruited for the purpose of banning or restricting abortion access. A 7-year case by the same group seeking to wind back access went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 2012 Right to Life lost by a frighteningly narrow 2-3 ruling. The fact that abortion access in New Zealand was one justice away from being severely restricted in 2012 should have been a wake-up call that our criminalised abortion laws need urgent change. But, again, this is abortion and if there’s one thing (almost) all politicians agree on, it’s that they’d rather do nothing than wade into a debate about reproductive justice.
So nothing happened, and so here we are again, with abortion access back in the dock. The implications of this case are significant (more on that below), and underscore the urgent need for supporters of reproductive choice and access to press politicians to take action to give our fragile abortion access a secure foundation.
MPs have been on notice for decades that our laws are barely able to function: the Abortion Supervisory Committee has said so, the courts have said so, even the United Nations has said so. And still there is silence. To quote Prime Minister John Key during the 2014 election campaign: “I’m opposed to changing the law … I think the law broadly works.” And that’s been the standard line from the abortion liberals in Parliament for decades now – apart, that is, from a few stand-outs in the Green Party, which became the first-ever major party to adopt a pro-choice platform in 2014, some impressive Young Labour activism and a bold stand in 2010 by former Labour MP Steve Chadwick.
Importing U.S.-Style TRAP Laws
The new case at hand was publicly announced on Sunday, when Right to Life said it was headed to the High Court to challenge the Abortion Supervisory Committee over granting a licence to Family Planning to provide early medication abortions at its Tauranga clinic. (Family Planning is only an “interested party” in this case, and it will be the Crown Law Office that plays defence.)
Though we haven’t yet seen Right to Life’s formal arguments, the media release and RTL’s previous posts about the Tauranga clinic indicate this effort is straight from the American TRAP law playbook (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). In this case, RTL plans to argue that our law requires any institution providing abortion have “adequate surgical and other facilities” for the performance of safe abortions. As even RTL acknowledges, when the 1977 Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act was enacted, there were no medical abortions. Since Family Planning’s Tauranga clinic isn’t a hospital or a surgical facility, I’m assuming RTL will claim it doesn’t have the “adequate surgical and other facilities” needed to hold an abortion licence under the law so the ASC shouldn’t have given it one. (A hearing will take place at the High Court in Wellington on 2 June starting at 10 a.m. According to the court, it should be open to the public.)
It’s important to explain a bit about what early medication abortion is. At the Tauranga clinic, medication abortions are available only up until 9 weeks of pregnancy (63 days), and involve bringing on a miscarriage using two medications usually taken 48 hours apart, Mifegyne or Mifepristone (formerly known as RU486) and Misoprostol (also known as Cytotec). You can read more here from Family Planning itself about what an early medication abortion entails. It’s also worth a reminder that people seeking abortions in the Bay of Plenty – as elsewhere – muststill meet the requirements of our criminal statutes: Before you can get an abortion, two doctors (certifying consultants) must agree that your case meets one of the half dozen criteria listed in the Crimes Act.